Schedules, Goals, and Dreams
Since we’re a few days into the new year and we’re all planning and hoping and dreaming for a better year than the last, I thought I’d share something that people having been asking me about for years: how I get things done.
I’ve found that there are four components of getting things done: (1) hard work, (2) obsessive time management, (3) rigid prioritization, and (4) discipline. They sound clear and understandable in the abstract, but I haven’t been able to get myself to accomplish anything just by telling myself I need to work hard, be careful with my time, prioritize, and be disciplined — that’s just too abstract, and gets me nowhere. It’s not helpful. I’ve also found that it isn’t helpful to encourage people to just work hard or prioritize or be disciplined — pretty much everyone knows they have to do these things, but what they want to know is how.
So, today, I’m going to break down my how — how I work hard, how I manage time, how I prioritize, how I stay disciplined — in the hope that maybe it will be helpful to you, too. In a nutshell, I make daily, weekly, monthly, and annual schedules that help me build momentum, keep momentum, track my long-term goals, break those long-term goals into short-term pieces, and accomplish all my big goals and dreams.
It all comes down to one thing: a monthly to-do notebook.
Every month, I crack open a new one of these notebooks (I’ve been using these since around maybe 2013/2014 and I love them because they are the exact right size and have the perfect number of pages for what I need; you can and should use any notebook that works for you). On the cover, I write the month (see the photo above). Then I open it to the first page.
On the very first page of the notebook, I write my long-term goals. These are things I want to accomplish over the next 5-10 years, and the list is pretty varied, filled with big difficult things as well as smaller easier things.
Here’s what the top of my first page looks like:
Be a good person
Be a good wife and partner
Be a good mom
Be a good colleague
Be a good friend
Become a good novelist
Become a good screenwriter
Direct one film
Start a production company
Finally become fluent in Ancient Greek
Write a television show
Become a good pianist
Become a good violinist
Learn to ice skate
(The list keeps going for a while)
There are two important things I want to point out about this list.
First, every one of the goals on this list are things that are entirely within my power to achieve. This is so, so, so incredibly important and if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this squarknote, it’s that if you want to set yourself up for success, you absolutely have to pick goals that don’t depend on things outside of your control.
This is why, for example, my novel-writing goal says “Become a good novelist” and not “Publish three novels" — becoming a good novelist is entirely within my control, but publishing three novels is not. If I made it my goal to publish three novels, then I would just be setting myself up for failure. The same goes for my screenwriting goal. I don’t know if anyone will buy or make the movies I write, but I can still work hard and become a good screenwriter no matter what.
Things like “Start a production company,” “Direct one film,” and “Write a television show” might seem to go against this, but they don’t: I can start a production company any time, I can direct a film any time, and I can write a tv show (now whether anyone buys and makes that show is totally out of my control). For example, while I’d love to direct a Star Wars movie, that’s totally outside of my control, so that’s not my goal — instead, my goal is to direct one film. If I’m super lucky, maybe that will be one of the Star Wars preprequels I’ve been dreaming up since I was a kid. If that never happens, then I’ll direct my own low-budget film instead.
The second thing I want to point out about this list is that none of the bigger goals are detailed here. They’re pretty vague and they’re pretty abstract. For example, what on earth does it mean to “Be a good friend”? How the hell am I gonna accomplish something like “Become a good novelist”?
The answer is that I take my big goals — the huge dreams I want to achieve in my lifetime and/or in the next 5-10 years — and I then figure out what I need to do in order to achieve those things. But that doesn’t mean making a list of “here are all the things I need to do to make this goal happen.” I used to do that, and I’d end up with these giant, incredibly unhelpful lists that made my goals seem completely impossible to ever accomplish. So, instead, I came up with a different list: the things I can do this year to get myself closer to achieving those goals.
This is where the next page comes in…
So, on the first page and the back of that page (technically the second page) of my notebook, I have my big long-term goals. Then, on what are technically the third and fourth pages of my notebook, I write down my annual goals. These are the things I need to achieve this year to bring myself closer to achieving my big long-term goals. Importantly, just like the long-term goals, they are all things that are within my power to achieve (this is true for all the goals I set).
I give each long-term goal at least one corresponding annual goal. Some of the long-term goals — like “Become a good screenwriter” — can have a whole bunch of annual goals, like writing some screenplays (I’ve got a really fun pipeline of scripts, so I break this down into “Write X,” “Write Y, “Write Z,” where X, Y, and Z are the titles), improving my dialogue, working on structure, etc. My goals that will get me closer to “Become a good novelist” for this year are things like “Finish Horse Girl revisions” (Horse Girl is the novel I sold to William Morrow last year) and starting my next novel. Even the smaller goals (like my dream to finally be fluent in Ancient Greek) are broken down into year-sized pieces, like “Work through this textbook,” “Translate these books,” etc.
Then comes the next set of pages…
This is where I break my annual goals into month-sized pieces. I don’t look at the long-term goals when I’m making this list. I only look at the annual goals and ask myself one question: what do I need to do this month to get myself closer to achieving these goals? This is where the goals start to look more granular and detailed: "Write chapters 4-8,” “Write third draft of X screenplay,” “Read 8 books,” etc. These goals usually take up two pages.
And then I break down these monthly goals into weekly chunks. I look at the monthly goals, ask myself what I need to do in this particular week to get closer to accomplishing my goals for the month, and then spread out the pieces over the weeks.
These pages are organized a little bit differently from the earlier ones, because they are interspersed with the daily goals pages. So, for example, if my January notebook had an index, it would look like this:
Goals for 2021……………………………………………3-4
January 2021 Goals……………………………………5-6
Goals for December 28th-January 3rd……..7-8
Monday, 28 December 2020……………………..9-10
Tuesday, 29 December 2020……………………..11-12
Wednesday, 30 December 2020………………..13-14
Thursday, 31 December 2020……………………15-16
Friday, 1 January 2021………………………………17-18
Saturday, 2 January 2021………………………….19-20
Goals for January 4th-10th……………………….21-22
Monday, January 4th 2021……………………….23-24
And so on.
Okay, let’s get to the pages that make up the bulk of the notebook…
I give every day (except Sundays, which are my rest days) two pages in the notebook. And on these pages, I break down my weekly goals into what I need to do each day to accomplish those weekly goals. I’ve found it easiest to categorize these into types of activities, like “Write,” “Exercise,” “Learn,” etc.
(Side note: I recently left my full-time job to write full-time, and so, for the first time since I was thirteen, I’m my own boss. However, for most of my life and in all of my schedule books up until a few months ago, my goals included my day job goals, and my daily goals had a “Work” section that contained the things I needed to get done that day, like “write this code” or “edit this piece” or “go to these meetings,” etc.)
To give you an example of what this looks like, here is the first page for Monday, January 4th (there’s a second page that has more random stuff but I’ll just write out the first page for simplicity). This is what it looked like before the day began:
Monday, 4 January 2021
__ Horse Girl
__ 10k steps
MEA: (note: this stands for “meetings, events, and appointments”)
__ None today
__ Murder on the Orient Express
__ Ancient Greek
I keep my notebook open on my desk the whole day. And, as I go through the day, I check things off on the list as I do them. By the end of the day, my list looked like this:
Monday, 4 January 2021
X Horse Girl
X 10k steps
__ None today
X Murder on the Orient Express
X Ancient Greek
I do this every single day of the year except on Sundays and holidays.
WHY THIS WORKS FOR ME
I’ve been doing this for at least ten years now. I started back in college, when I realized that I needed a handy way to keep track of my goals and break them down into manageable pieces. While my methods have improved over the years, the process is basically the same.
One thing I want to point out is that all the elements of getting shit done — hard work, discipline, time management, prioritization — are here, baked into the structure of each day. I don’t have to think about them, I don’t have to wonder or worry or beat myself up about not being disciplined or hard working. All I have to do is sit down at my desk every day and do what my daily goal page tells me I need to do.
Another thing I want to bring attention to is that these goals are achievable. Now, some days are totally disastrous, sometimes I’m sick, sometimes I don’t have childcare, sometimes there’s an emergency, sometimes there’s an attempted coup at the Capitol. On those days, everything goes out the window. There are some external events and constraints that can influence whether or not I get things done. And that’s okay. If I miss a few things or a few days, I just write them into next week’s goals and go from there. But the goals themselves are achievable. It’s totally in my control whether or not these things get done, and that means that not only can I accomplish my goals every day, week, month, and year, but, over time, I can also accomplish these huge, overwhelming, vague, important goals. And I do.
This method has worked for me. I mean really, really worked. As I talk about in my book Whistleblower, I’ve done a lot of things in my twenty-nine years on this earth and have worked in a lot of different fields. I’ve written a software architecture book. I’ve written a memoir. I’ve written a novel. I’ve been a software engineer. I’ve been a physicist. I’ve started and run a magazine. I’ve been an editor at The New York Times. I’ve learned physics, math, philosophy, computer science, screenwriting, and so much more — all while working intense 60+-hours-a-week day jobs. And this is how I have done it.
I have no idea if this will work for you. But in case it will, please give it a try. Make it your own. Figure out what you want to do in the next few years, and then figure out how you can break those big goals down into a manageable daily to-do list. If you have any questions about my schedule books and how I write them and plan things, leave a comment below!
What I’m Reading: Dinosaurs: A Concise Natural History by David E. Fastovsky and David B. Weishampel. I was feeling pretty sick over the weekend and wanted something fun to read, so I laid in bed and read this and truly enjoyed it. It’s super basic, but I didn’t know very much about dinosaurs, so it was incredibly informative. I’m going to finish it this week and then find some more fun dinosaur books. (Comment below if you have any suggestions!)